folktale, general term for any of numerous varieties of traditional narrative. The telling of stories appears to be a cultural universal, common to primitive and complex societies alike. Even the forms folktales take are demonstrably similar from culture to culture, and comparative studies of themes and narrative techniques have been successful in showing these relationships. Among the foremost folklorists of the 19th cent. were Oskar Dähnhardt in Germany, S. O. Addy in England, Paul Sébillot in France, and Y. M. Sokolov in Russia. Major 20th-century scholars in the field include Franz Boas, Richard Chase, Marie Campbell, and Stith Thompson. Folklorists make distinctions among the categories of folktales. Legends and traditions are narratives of an explanatory nature concerning creation and tribal beginnings, supernatural beings, and quasi-historical figures (e.g., King Arthur, Lady Godiva). These stories are related as fact and concern a specific time and place. Fairy tales are entirely fictional and often begin with such formulas as "Once upon a time …" and "In a certain country there lived … ." Popular examples recount the supernatural adventures and mishaps of youngest daughters, transformed princes, mermaids, and wood fairies and elves (e.g., Cinderella, Rumplestiltskin, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Hansel and Gretel). Animal tales abound in every culture; most of them are clearly anthropomorphic, the animals assuming human personalities. Such tales are classified according to three subdivisions: the etiological tale, or tale concerning origins (e.g., Great Hare of the Native North Americans); the fable pointing to a moral (Aesop's fables); and the beast epic (e.g., Reynard the Fox; see bestiary). Myths, which are more difficult to define satisfactorily, treat happenings of a long-ago time; they generally concern the adventures of gods, giants, heroes, nymphs, satyrs, and villains, as well as etiological themes. See also mythology; monsters and imaginary beasts in folklore; elf; fairy; goblin; gremlin; troll.
See S. Thompson, The Folktale (1946); V. O. Binner, American Folktales (1966) and International Folktales (1967); R. M. Dorson, America in Legend (1974); H. Courlander, A Treasury of African Folklore (1975), A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore (1976), and The Tiger's Whisker and Other Tales from Asia and the Pacific (1995); A. Clarkson and G. B. Cross, World Folktales (1984).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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